I’ve been reading a bit about zoning lately, this article is a neat summation of one of my concerns about suburbs in the United States: stupid zoning laws. Author “simval84” writes a blog called “Urban kchoze”, here’s a post about Japanese zoning:

Japanese do not impose one or two exclusive uses for every zone. They tend to view things more as the maximum nuisance level to tolerate in each zone, but every use that is considered to be less of a nuisance is still allowed. So low-nuisance uses are allowed essentially everywhere. That means that almost all Japanese zones allow mixed use developments, which is far from true in North American zoning.

With the kind of zoning we have here, when new homes are built, there will never be a neighborhood pizza place. You’ll never be able to walk from the ball field to an ice cream parlor. During a snowstorm, you won’t be able to trudge through the drifts to the local café, chat with your neighbors about the storm, warm up, and have a cup of coffee. When you are retired and can no longer drive, you won’t be able to meet your friends for brunch on a Tuesday in the summer. Why?

Because everything is specifically zoned to be too damn far away from everything else!

Even simply lacing the borders of housing developments with mixed use properties would be an improvement, but the closest I’ve seen is strip malls on the outskirts of developments at the intersections of huge roads. Anyhow, more from simval84 at his comments page on The Guardian.

Update: here’s more, pulling it all together in a big picture:

…minimum lot sizes mean that each lot would be very big, so there is little advantage of building a smaller house as you can’t leverage the smaller size of buildings to increase density. House building costs are also not proportional to square feet, the cost of a marginal square foot is much lower than the average cost per square foot.

As to highways and land prices, I think you must consider the impact of car-oriented “urbanism” and very high highway coverage. Let’s suppose a city with a strong center with jobs and stores located there. People who want to go live in the city will tolerate living maybe 15-20 minutes from downtown. Now, if you only have residential streets, as cars travel on average about 20-25 mph on them (including stops and lights), that would mean that the lands available for development would be lands located within 5 or 6 miles of the downtown area, so maybe 80-100 square miles.

Now add 60 mph highways through the area. Suddenly, the land situated at 6 miles from downtown is not at 15-20 minutes from downtown, but at 6 minutes from it. People will tolerate living much farther away, up to 15-20 miles away from downtown. That’s 700 to 1200 square miles of lands close enough to downtown for people to settle on. Proximity is measured in minutes, not in miles.

The result of that is that land prices collapse because there’s so much land that is at an acceptable distance from downtown. Since land is cheap, there is no pressure to build smaller houses. People can build spatially inefficient houses that are cheap to build as they are mostly empty spaces.

If you go see Europe on the other hand, most highways circumvent urban areas, they do not penetrate them. So the distance people are willing to live away from downtown is much shorter. People tend to concentrate closer to the main cities. For instance, most Paris suburbs just stop 20 miles away from the city center (they have highways, they just stop a few miles from downtown). The city of Newman, an Atlanta suburb, is 40 miles away from downtown Atlanta.

It means that land prices will be much more expensive, creating an incentive to use less land per housing unit, ie more density.

So in the US, where highways cover most of metropolitan areas, land will be very cheap, and thus it allows for people to build bigger houses for the same price.

Finally, the low-density car-oriented public realm will likely be extremely poor. Therefore, most people will spend almost their entire lives inside their homes, as there is little point to going outside. So you need an expansive and rich private realm in order to compensate and to avoid cabin fever.

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